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Strategies for K-12 School Districts to Enhance Student Career Readiness

Key Takeaways from a Panel of Career Readiness Experts
Colleen Potter
December 11, 2023

In a world where the job market is constantly evolving, the need for students to be prepared for the challenges of tomorrow has never been more pressing. The rapid pace of technological advancements and the emergence of new industries demand that we rethink and restructure the way we educate our students.

We recently met with three K–12 career readiness experts to explore the core principles of career education and competency-based education.


  • Mike Duncan, President, Battelle for Kids
  • Sean Jones, Career Pathways Consultant, Edmonton Public Schools
  • Mike Lang, Chief Innovation Program Officer, ed.Xtraordinary

Listen to the full conversation below for insights into how these methodologies can empower students with the tools they need to thrive in the dynamic job market or keep reading for our key takeaways.

K–12 Educational Priorities Are Shifting as the Job Landscape Changes

In today’s world, changes are occurring at a rapid pace. We see it being reflected in the job market, with new industries emerging, and it’s also changing K-12 educational priorities across North America, with an increased emphasis on K-12 student career readiness, competency development, and student-centered personalized learning.

These priorities are being reflected at all levels: at the school district level when new board members are elected and districts must define their education plan, at the national level with organizations like CERIC producing research on career development, and at the state/ provincial level with new mandates emphasizing the need for increased competency-based education to prepare students for life after graduation.

“Our first priority and our goal 3 is to promote competencies, to empower students to meet the needs of a changing society workforce and climate, which I also think is really important for students.” – Sean Jones

At the same time, shifts are happening within the workforce to embrace this competency-based approach. Mike Duncan, President of Battelle for Kids, highlights that skills-based hiring is becoming an industry practice, with hiring managers across the United States emphasizing competencies as a key element to look for when selecting a candidate for a role.

Finally, there are shifts in learning environment design that are also taking place to reflect these changes. Student-centered learning is coming to the forefront and with that comes student choice, personalization, and having students be narrators of their own journeys.

“Districts being able to be really intentional about the skills, mindsets, and dispositions that they are designing learning environments for, but not forgetting that rigorous academic content is a part of that equation and making sure that we build learning environments that support student agency transfer of learning as well as portfolios of artifacts and evidence. So students can demonstrate their mastery of those durable skills.” – Mike Duncan

All Students Can Benefit From Career Readiness Initiatives

Starting K-12 career readiness initiatives in the early years is a critical step in preparing our children for success as they transition from one stage of life to the next. By recognizing that not everything needs to wait until high school, we empower students to explore their interests and passions from a young age, fostering a sense of purpose and direction. As Sean Jones mentions, children begin contemplating their future jobs far earlier than we might realize, and career readiness initiatives should reflect this.

“There is a lot of evidence to show that kids start thinking about what job they might want to do from the time that they start actually identifying that they are a person within society. And that happens well before they get into kindergarten, they start to develop ideas about who they want to be, and who they look up to. They start to make connections between the people that they see on, especially in television and in the media, and so start making connections around gender divisions within workforces as well as ethnic divisions and issues of equality and equity come in there.” – Sean Jones

Moreover, instilling high expectations for all learners, regardless of age or ability, is essential. By setting the bar high early on, we ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach their full potential and contribute meaningfully to society.

“Our exceptional learners have a lot to contribute to our school communities and our communities at large, and they shouldn't be forgotten in these conversations.” – Mike Lang

Competencies Should Depend on the Local Context and Involve Stakeholder Engagement

When considering which competencies to prioritize at the school or district level to help prepare students for success after high school, what matters most, according to our experts, is keeping the local context at the center. Every community has its own unique needs and a one-size-fits-all approach will not be effective. Equally important is recognizing the essential role of diverse stakeholders, including parents, teachers, community members, and students, in shaping the competencies that will best serve their students' future.

“I think that's one of the really beautiful parts of the Profile of a Graduate process is that it brings the community together around their hopes and aspirations for young people in the community. In a time when education has been in some communities very divisive, this is an opportunity for people to come together and square around that North Star that we call the Portrait of a Graduate” – Mike Duncan

Though the local context is key, a few themes emerged, including communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and critical thinking as common themes. And, according to Mike Duncan, Battelle for Kids tends to see 10 competencies consistently:

  • Adaptability
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Confidence
  • Critical thinking
  • Empathy
  • Perseverance
  • Problem-solving
  • Creativity
  • Responsibility

And while common themes and skills can help us drive our local competencies, it’s important to consider student voice and choice.

“I think storytelling is number one for me. Can you tell a story?... The most basic human, the most quintessentially human thing, is being able to tell a story…everyone has a story. It’s just allowing people the space to tell those stories” – Mike Lang

Furthermore, these competencies are not isolated or independent; they are deeply interconnected, relying on one another for meaningful development. With interconnectedness comes competency shifts and impactful semantic changes, such as nurturing solution innovation rather than mere problem-solving, encouraging students to think critically and creatively to address complex issues, and co-design rather than collaboration to emphasize the better approach to finding solutions.

“I think one of the challenges that we have when we talk about these [competencies] is that they're entangled. You can't have them in isolation. They rely on each other and the context in order to be fully realized.” – Sean Jones

There are Challenges to Increasing Future Readiness Initiatives But There Are Solutions Too

While increasing K–12 student career readiness is a top priority for many school districts, it doesn’t happen overnight. There are barriers that districts and schools may need to overcome when implementing career-readiness initiatives, namely time, competing priorities, upskilling, and staffing challenges.

“I use this term often as well. We moonwalk into the future. We're not actually looking forward. We're looking in the past, and we're scooting backward, and it can become unnerving.” – Mike Lang

According to our experts, there are a few things that school districts and schools can do to help overcome these challenges, including:

  • Shifting the mindset of what it means to be a teacher from content expert to designer of concept-based teaching and learning
  • Creating time for teachers to do this work because it is work they want to do (this could look like reducing the number of days students go to school and converting those to professional learning opportunities for teachers like they did in Pike County Schools)
  • Having conversations about what it means to be a career educator (everyone is one and that doesn’t mean they have to be career experts)
  • Being mindful and intentional about everyday activities to include career-related conversations
  • Leveraging industry tools and technology that are available to support student career readiness
  • Figuring out what the context is locally rather and prioritizing items that matter the most to your community, rather than providing everything to everyone

“Also being mindful and intentional about everyday activities. One of the things that I said to a group a couple of weeks ago was, everything is a career exploration activity. Did you go to a store this week? Think about who's working there. How did the supplies get there? What are they doing?” - Sean Jones

At a broader level, changes could be made to remove many of these barriers to reframe career-readiness initiatives from an “add-on” to a “want to do.” These include simplifying, systematizing, and creating the structures that meet the system.

“We always seem to add additional things on to teachers and on to schools. But there are some fundamental leadership capabilities that if we could employ, I think, could make this a lot easier. It's number one, simplify and number 2 systematize and number 3 create the structures that meet the system. And so so often, we're thinking about these large transformational movements. We're talking about this deep change. But we don't co-create the processes with the community with the teachers, with the students.” – Mike Duncan

Co-creation is Vital to Building a Career Readiness Framework

While building a school or district career readiness framework isn’t easy, Sean Jones, Career Pathways Consultant at Edmonton Public Schools, shared the steps his school district took when creating their Career Pathway Model.

First and foremost, it’s important to involve stakeholders in the process to identify what the career readiness framework should encompass, and tailor it to the local context and needs. This could look like holding a forum where students, parents, community members, teachers, and other stakeholders come together to share what’s important to them in a career readiness framework.

“That we prepare our students for the future and that we bring to them responsive learning opportunities and environments that are going to support the competencies and transferable skills. And it has to be a top-down and bottom-up supported effort. It can't just come from teachers. It can't just come from the community. It can't just come from students. It needs to be everybody in the room at the same time, and we need to be removing those silos and doing what Mike Duncan was talking about, and really co-creating what this looks like” – Sean Jones

Secondly, having a framework that’s comprehensive and spans from kindergarten through 12th grade provides a seamless and continuous journey for students. The EPSB career pathways framework, for instance, breaks it down into three key contexts:

  1. Awareness (K-4): where students begin to discover their interests and strengths
  2. Understanding (5-9): where learners explore the various opportunities available to them
  3. Readiness (10-12), where students set concrete goals and further develop the skills required for a successful transition after high school

Lastly, it's vital to regularly revisit and refine the framework with your stakeholders to keep it evolving and in sync with the changing landscape of career readiness. This is how Edmonton Public Schools further developed their model to keep it moving forward.

Technology Plays a Multi-Faceted Role In Student Career Readiness

The role of technology in student career readiness cannot be overstated. Technology not only opens doors to innovative solutions but also equips students with the tools and skills they need to be competitive when they enter the workforce. Mike Lang, Chief Innovation Program Officer at ed.Xtraordinary, shares that it’s about identifying how we move students from consumers to producers and providing them with the tools and opportunities to do this.

“What are the tech tools and tech skills that are necessary for a learner to be competitive…in the workforce? Taking those particular skills, taking those particular tools, and exposing those students to them. Generally, they're not super complicated…We've got kids in first and second grade using Figma to prototype and brainstorm.” – Mike Lang

With the rise of content creation platforms and educational resources online, students can learn at their own pace and develop a wide range of skills. From YouTube video creation to coding and graphic design, technology not only facilitates learning but also encourages students to take charge of their education.

Central to this shift is the concept of student agency and curation of learning. Digital portfolios play a pivotal role in building agency, allowing students to track their progress, showcase their work, and reflect on their journey.

The portfolio piece cannot be underestimated. Just about building agency. One of our team members, Jamie Mead, has been doing Hope research for many, many years, and she's been going all around the country talking about hope, and one of the things that she says that leads back to this idea of the portfolios being so important is…Hope is the new GPA. Because hope is about goals, pathways, and agencies. And when you have goals and you construct pathways, and you enact agency, the portfolio is that fundamental tool to be able to curate your learning to set goals, to be able to understand the different pathways before you, and then to curate the evidence of those authentic performances.” – Mike Duncan


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About the Panelists

Sean Jones
Sean Jones (HBA, MACT) is a Research Consultant with Career Pathways at Edmonton Public Schools. He draws on 25 years of experience in the fields of technology, arts, conference management, education, and social sciences (all five career pathways!)

Mike Lang
Mike Lang’s 18-year career in education began as a 4th grade teacher in Mississippi. He later taught English in Taiwan and spent the rest of his career as an educator in Las Vegas, Nevada. A technology integration specialist, he has been honored as an Apple Distinguished Educator and PBS Digital Innovator. He is currently the Chief Innovation Program Officer at ed.Xtraordinary where he helps educators, and their learners integrate innovative ideas into their classrooms.

Mike Duncan
Mike Duncan is the President and CEO of Battelle for Kids, a national, not-for-profit organization with the mission of realizing the power and promise of 21st-century learning for every student. Battelle for Kids helps education leaders engage their community to re-envision and transform their school systems. At Battelle for Kids, we take a systems approach to promote enduring transformation of the system and equitable, deeper learning outcomes for every student. Before arriving at Battelle for Kids, Mike served eighteen years as Superintendent in Pike County Georgia, earning the distinction of superintendent of the year in 2021.

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